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Social Media, the New Exit Poll?

The GOP debate, as told by Facebook and Twitter
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Ambitious Republicans with an eye to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are coming center stage as the early days of primary season descend upon us. CNN’s John King moderated the New Hampshire Republican Presidential Debate last night, while eager viewers were at the ready to give real-time feedback on outlets such as Facebook and Twitter.

Polling has always been an important element to any electoral bid, but now a new type of impromptu assessment is coming to the fore. Third parties, such as analytics startup Likester, are carving out a space for themselves by processing data that is instantaneously available. The analysis is meant to offer early indicators of candidates’ performance, much like a voting-day exit poll.

For the New Hampshire debate, Likester gauged viewer reaction, and thus candidate popularity, by monitoring the candidates’ official Facebook pages for a spike in Likes. The numbers came back with strong support for Mitt Romney followed by Michele Bachmann, who beat out Ron Paul. Though the debate garnered Bachmann more Likes for the evening, Paul is still ahead of the hopeful representative from Minnesota in overall Likes. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were far behind the top contenders.

Facebook Likes, however, are just one way to monitor the virtual community’s preferences. CNN made its debate inherently social by incorporating posts from its own site, Twitter, and Facebook into the debate itself. The network’s #CNNDebate hashtag proved to be a huge success on Twitter, with many users not only voicing their clear preference for candidates, but also extending the on-screen debate to a meta arena, asking further questions and adding their own opinions on the issues.

Though another analytics site, Trendistic, managed to process the debate’s overall presence on the Twitter platform (1.5 percent of all tweets worldwide included the CNN hashtag at one point during the debate), language processing software is not yet advanced enough to get a read on what exactly Twitter users are saying.